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Iraq Report: October 6, 2006

October 6, 2006, Volume 9, Number 35

IRAQI GOVERNMENT MAKING PROGRESS ON SECURITY. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced the signing of a new peace initiative on October 2 amid reports of increased tension among parties in his national unity government. Relations between Sunni and Shi'ite Arab parties have been on a downward spiral for weeks, brought on by increasing distrust on the political front (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," September 15, 2006) and continued sectarian violence.

The new initiative, which includes a pledge by parties to work to stop bloodshed, had some observers questioning whether the government was getting serious on security or simply paying lip service to the problems. Recent developments give reason to believe that the government actually may be making progress.

The announcement follows the launch of two major security initiatives last week in Iraq. The first, initiated by tribal leaders in the Al-Anbar Governorate and backed by Baghdad, seeks to confront Al-Qaeda fighters operating in the western region. The second, a joint operation by Iraqi and British forces, seeks to rein in militias operating in the southern governorate of Al-Basrah. Both operations, which are both expected to last several months, appear to be making slow and steady progress.

National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters at a Baghdad press briefing on October 1 that Al-Qaeda in Iraq was in its last throes. He said the organization's leader, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir (aka Abu Ayyub al-Masri), is trying to win back the support of Al-Anbar chieftains now that the "noose is being tightened on him."

Al-Rubay'i pledged that the terrorist leader's fate would be the same as that of previous Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, who U.S. forces killed in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2006). That statement elicited a terse response from Al-Qaeda, which said in an October 4 Internet statement that it is increasing in strength every day.

The statement also claimed that the United States and Iraq are carrying out a deceptive media campaign. "Where is the media coverage of the heroic operations in Mosul, Al-Anbar, Diyala, and south of Baghdad? The truth is that we can get to [U.S. and Iraqi forces] and they can't get to us," it claimed. "We attack them and they cannot attack us." In an apparent reference to al-Muhajir, it added, "The Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq is not one single man, rather it is a multitude of men; some have died, others are waiting their turn."

Interior, Defense Ministries Crack Down

Al-Maliki's October 2 announcement was followed by two major operations by the Interior and Defense ministries to crack down on rogue elements operating under the cover of police and army units.

The army arrested 251 people in a weeklong operation in the Diyala Governorate led by Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Ubaydi and army Chief of Staff Babakr Zebari. The operation, dubbed Swift Response, was launched after complaints from local residents over the conduct of the army's 5th Battalion and its commander, Brigadier General Shakir al-Ka'bi, parliamentarian Muhammad al-Dayini told Al-Jazeera television on October 4.

"Unfortunately, since he assumed his duties, the security situation has been getting worse," al-Dayini said of al-Ka'bi. Al-Dayini claimed the battalion arrested "400 innocent civilians" in the governorate.

"The arrest campaign was coupled by the systematic theft of money, properties, and gold, not to mention that those arrested were torture, beatings, and humiliation," he added. U.S. forces have arrested three of the commander's guards on allegations they belonged to death squads active in the governorate.

The government also suspended the 8th Brigade of the 2nd Division of the national police, also known as the Falcon Brigade, and ordered it to undergo retraining amid allegations that some members are linked to death squads, U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told reporters at an October 4 press briefing in Baghdad.

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf confirmed the move, saying that suspicions arose after the brigade, which was based in northwest Baghdad, failed to respond to a mass kidnapping in Baghdad's Al-Amal neighborhood on October 1. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani reacted by removing the brigade and battalion commanders from duty.

The brigade "will report to a forward operating base to reorganize and begin, specifically, antimilitia, antisectarian-violence, and national-unity training both at the unit level and at the individual level. This brigade's past performance has not demonstrated the level of professionalism sought by the [Interior Ministry]," Caldwell told reporters. He said it is unclear how much commanders knew, "but there is clear evidence that there was some complicity [by police] in allowing death-squad elements to move freely when in fact they were supposed to have been impeding their movement."

Rise In Casualty Figures

While the new initiatives offer hope that al-Maliki's administration is making progress on the security front, Baghdad and other areas of the country continue to face a steady stream of violence. That reality prompted the Council of Representatives to extend the state of emergency for another month despite objections by some lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2006).

Indeed, violence in the capital continued at record levels this week, with the Interior Ministry reporting on October 2 that some 67 bodies were found on the streets of Baghdad over the preceding 30-hour period. Many of the bodies bore signs of torture and most were killed by gunshots.

Meanwhile, partial statistics released by the Interior Ministry this week indicate as much as a 42 percent increase in the civilian death toll from August to September. According to the ministry, some 1,089 civilians died in September, compared to 769 in August and 1,065 in July.

The number apparently does not include the unidentified bodies that pass through the Baghdad morgue in a given month. The morgue has reportedly been ordered to no longer release that data.

U.S. spokesman Caldwell told reporters at an October 4 press briefing in Baghdad that although casualty numbers rose in September, they did not increase in proportion to the number of attacks. "The overall effectiveness of attacks, or the enemy's ability to inflict casualties or cause damage has decreased and has been decreasing since the June time period," he noted.

"Last week we also saw the highest number of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices this year that were both found and cleared, and those that were detonated. The number of IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, is also at an all-time high. But Iraqi security forces and coalition forces continue to find and clear a portion of these devices," Caldwell said.

What More Can Be Done?

With several initiatives under way across the country and al-Maliki pressing forward with his reconciliation initiative, many observers are left wondering what more can be done.

For one, more needs to be done to rein in militias. This week's operations by the Interior and Defense ministries are cause for optimism. While time remains a pressing factor in the struggle to bring order to the country, realistically speaking, neither coalition forces nor the Iraqi government have the capacity to break militias in one fell swoop.

Militias can only be eliminated once several other factors are met: an effective, nonsectarian army is formed; greater political harmony is achieved through confidence-building measures by both Sunni and Shi'ite parties; and funding networks and supply lines are cut.

But another factor could have a significant impact on the speed at which the above is achieved: bringing Iraqis on board. While the majority of the civilian population craves an end to violence and the establishment of some sort of normalcy to their lives, there is a lack of any real grassroots movement to end the violence plaguing the country.

Fears Of Ba'athist Return

For some Iraqis, there remains a disproportional fear of a Ba'athist resurgence. Indeed, many Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurds argue that should the government fall, or coalition forces pull out, and civil war erupt, the Ba'athists would regain power in a matter of weeks. This belief, whether or not it is likely, is arguably the core reason why many are afraid to fully and publicly back government efforts. Their desire to protect themselves against an unclear future is that strong.

The fact that the former Ba'ath Party maintains a murky presence in Iraq only intensifies such fears. Insurgent groups linked to the party claim to be everywhere, their strength unclear, save for the numbers of dead they leave behind in attacks, the victories they claim, and threats they post in mosques, neighborhoods, and on the Internet.

At times, their presence is acutely felt. On September 30, a group identifying itself as the Ba'ath Party-affiliated Dhi Qar Organization claimed responsibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2006) for the killings the day before of the brother-in-law and nephew of Muhammad al-Uraybi, the chief judge in the Anfal trial.

The trials against Saddam Hussein and former members of his regime offer a continued reminder of the party as well. Though the trials may not occupy the forefront of most Iraqis' thoughts, they are there in the background, and in the daily media. While there is little doubt the trials offer much-needed closure for the victims of Hussein's regime, there is also little doubt that they serve as a continued reminder of tyranny one group can inflict on a nation. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on October 6.)

SECTARIAN VIOLENCE DRIVES INCREASE IN INTERNALLY DISPLACED. The huge increase in sectarian violence in Iraq, following the attack on the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra on February 22, has forced thousands of Iraqis flee their homes, with many moving to the relatively secure Kurdish regions in the north to escape the bloodshed, according to Iraqi government sources and international humanitarian organizations.

The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration reported on September 28 that nearly a quarter of a million Iraqis have been displaced since the Samarra attacks. Approximately 80,000 Iraqis registered with the ministry as refugees from July to August and 40,000 families have sought government aid in the last seven months.

The data is based on the ministry's estimate that the average Iraqi family has six members, thereby bringing the latest tally to 240,000 people compared with 162,000 people at the end of July.

However, ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz said the number of displaced persons could be far higher as many Iraqis may have fled abroad rather than register with the ministry. "The reason for this increase is that the security situation in some provinces has deteriorated considerably, forcing people to flee their homes in fear for their lives," Nowruz told Reuters on September 28.

An unidentified ministry official indicated that that Ba'qubah, the capital of Diyala Governorate, has seen the steadiest rise in people either fleeing or being driven from their homes, AFP reported on September 30. "We expect this number to increase, especially in Ba'qubah, because right now there is a lot of violence there and a lot of families are leaving," the official said.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the refugee crisis is worsening at a dramatic rate, with nearly 9,000 Iraqis fleeing their homes per week and almost 190,000 refugees currently in central and southern Iraq, AFP reported on October 3. IOM said that the sheer number of refugees indicated that the displacement was starting to resemble a "permanent settlement," and there are growing concerns that the plight of the refugees will worsen as the sectarian violence has shown no signs of subsiding and as winter approaches.

"The vast majority of those displaced this year are not planning to return to their former homes. If this is not to become a chronic humanitarian crisis, we need to put in place livelihood and integration programs in addition to providing emergency assistance such as food and water," IOM Chief of Mission for Iraq Rafiq Tschannen said.

Many Flee North To Avoid Violence

The violence has also forced thousands of Shi'a and Sunnis to flee to the relatively peaceful Kurdish-controlled regions of northern Iraq. However, Kurdish officials along with international humanitarian organizations are struggling to keep up with the rapid influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs) entering the Kurdish regions.

Dr. Giorgio Francia an official with Qandil, a Swedish refugee agency, said that around 10,000 families or approximately 50,000 people have fled to Irbil and the surrounding areas in the last several months, Voice of America (VOA) reported on September 28. He warned that the continued flow of IDPs may force Kurdish officials to create refugee camps, but some officials balk at this notion since such camps may exist for decades, thereby making people dependent upon them.

Meanwhile, the Kurdish regional government coordinator for UN affairs, Dindar Zebari, said that the resources of the regional government and the UN to aid IDPs were already being overtaxed and he would request help from the Iraqi central government if any more refugees are to be taken in.

"Because most of the support and help that was given to Iraq was concentrated in the south, and also in the center of Iraq, for the last three years, and the issue of refugees and IDPs has not been taken care of in our part of the country," VOA quoted Zebari as saying.

Palestinian Refugees' Plight Worsens

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement on October 3 indicating concern at the plight of the nearly 20,000 Palestinians remaining in Iraq, down from an estimated 34,000 in 2003. The UNHCR said that Palestinians inside Iraq "lack protection," have had serious problems obtaining identity cards, and have been the subject of harassment, threats, and kidnappings.

At a news conference in Geneva, UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis noted a specific incident last month when armed men hand-delivered death threats to several Palestinians in Baghdad, setting off widespread panic among the Palestinian population. Some Palestinians were believed to have received preferential treatment by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and they have become targets since his ouster in 2003.

Pagonis also expressed concern for the 330 Palestinians at a makeshift refugee camp at the Al-Tanf border crossing with Syria who fled Iraq four months ago. She described the conditions at the camp as "deplorable," with inadequate medical and sanitation facilities, and warned that as winter approached, the situation would worsen as rains could flood and destroy the camp.

Meanwhile, Syria has refused to allow entry to refugees stranded at the border after it previously permitted 300 Palestinians to enter in May. The UNHCR expressed concern for those who were allowed in, who were placed at the El Hol camp, citing their temporary status, limited freedom of movement, and bleak prospects for the future.

The agency also said that 150 Palestinians from Iraq who are living in the Al-Ruwayshid camp in Jordan are preparing for a harsh winter, and all efforts to find solutions for them have failed. Jordan previously admitted 386 Palestinian refugees with Jordanian family connections in 2003. However, the Jordanian government has recently refused entry to other Palestinians from Iraq, and called on other nations in the region to offer them refuge and share in the burden.

The UNHCR said attempts by the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led forces have "yielded only modest results," and called on support from the international community to find solutions for Palestinians from Iraq.

The consequences of the continuing mass displacement of Iraqis are somewhat complicated, depending upon on their ethnic and religious affiliation and their location. For example, IDPs usually have an easier time integrating into communities that share the same religious association. However, tensions could still be inflamed if the new arrivals start competing for resources and scarce employment opportunities.

As for those Iraqis that have fled to the north, their presence in the region may lead to greater insecurity if death squads and armed gangs decided to head north as well, to seek revenge and settle old scores. Furthermore, if many IDPs decide to remain in the north, their relations could deteriorate with the Kurdish population, who may resent their presence once they begin to compete for resources and jobs. (By Sumedha Senanayake. Originally published on October 5.)